Fossil Poetry

Charles M. Stang on the work of Susan Brind Morrow



I can’t remember how it was that Susan Brind Morrow’s book, The Names of Things: A Passage in the Egyptian Desert, first found its way into my hands. I think someone gave it to me, but I can’t remember who, or exactly when. I do know that I’ve given it to a number of other people since then. I’ve read it so many times that I can’t remember when I first read it—it must have been around 2002, when I moved to Cairo for six months, longing for my own “passage in the Egyptian desert.” I know I must have had it with me in Cairo, because I transcribed passages from it into a notebook I carried with me from that time.


I reread it recently, and it’s astonishing how a book one has read so many times still offers itself up as if it were new, almost unread. I laughed again at her description of her first hotel in Cairo—the Garden City House because it was mine also. I remember the unbearable heat and humidity of my arrival in August, of my inability to sleep for many days, and as a result the Cairo I first came to know was almost hallucinatory, an insomniac’s dream of overwhelming crowds, traffic, and noise. I fell in love with that city, and with the dying river that cut through it—especially the Cairo of night during long hours spent lingering in coffee shops, smoking, and playing shesh besh.


I was also reminded of the pain at the center of Morrow’s book, the loss of her sister Barbara and, later, her brother David. In the wake of her brother’s death, Susan writes of finding her way back to Egypt:


“In the beginning of the summer I packed up and left the

country, having no idea where I was going. I wrote in my Shanghai

journal, on a train going north through Norway in August,


Something like the Fall in me

All my leaves were dying

They died in the most violent way

And turned screaming colors

I traveled north to the Lofoten Islands in the Arctic Ocean.

Coming south again I shared a compartment with an old Englishman

who lived in Oman. He was murmuring out his lists of

Arabic verb forms as we sped through the Dolomites. Listening

to him, I knew that throughout the trip, curled on my sleeping

bag spread out in train compartments, loving the rain and cold, I

had been heading back to Egypt.

It was not the idea of Egypt, or of Egyptology this time,

that drew me there, but Egypt itself. Egypt as raw environment,

difficult though it was. I have thought since that the difficult part

of it was like a knife cutting away the frozen parts of myself. At

Venice, I took a boat to Alexandria. I came into Cairo having

shed my baggage all along the way.” (59-60)


In the years since I first read, and reread The Names of Things, I have regularly spied on Susan by way of her publications. I remember in particular when Wolves & Honey came out. Last year, while doing my usual

sleuthing to see what Susan was up to, I saw that she had published The Dawning Moon of the Mind: Unlocking the Pyramid Texts. And then I read this description:


“Buried in the Egyptian desert some four thousand years

ago, the Pyramid Texts are among the world’s oldest poetry. Yet

ever since the discovery of these hieroglyphs in 1881, they have

been misconstrued by Western Egyptologists as a garbled collection

of primitive myths and incantations, relegating to obscurity

their radiant fusion of philosophy, scientific inquiry, and religion.

Now, in a seminal work, the classicist and linguist Susan

Brind Morrow has recast the Pyramid Texts as a coherent work of

art, arguing that they should be recognized as a formative event

in the evolution of human thought. In The Dawning Moon of the

Mind she explains how to read hieroglyphs, contextualizes their

evocative imagery, and interprets the entire poem. The result is

a magisterial religious and philosophical text revealing a profound

consciousness of the world with astonishing parallels to

Judeo-Christian culture, Buddhism, and Tantra.”


It’s a thrilling read, and a magisterial interpretive event. Last year, as I pondered how best to issue an invitation to Susan, I happened to be in Terry Tempest Williams’ apartment: Terry is the writer-in-residence at HDS and a resident of the CSWR. My eyes were drawn to her bookshelves where what did I find but a copy of The Names of Things. It turns out that we had both been touched by Susan’s searing prose, which has always reminded me of Emerson’s famous line, “Genius is the activity that repairs the decay of things.” Terry was as excited as I about the prospect of inviting Susan to speak as part of our series on “Poetry, Philosophy, and Religion.” And, so the invitation was issued and we were delighted when Susan accepted.


In October, 2018, Susan came to the Center to give a lecture from out of The Dawning Moon of the Mind. She spoke on “Nature into Language: Hieroglyphs and the Origins of Poetic Thought.” Taking inspiration from

Emerson’s insistence that “Language is fossil poetry,” Susan discussed hieroglyphs as poetic metaphors and vehicles of abstract thought that emerged from close observation of nature—a sophisticated language and metaphysics rooted in the vivid and precisely depicted physical world. Susan is currently the Scholar in Residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, and is also A New York Institute for the Humanities Fellow as well as a former Guggenheim Fellow. She was kind enough to share the following three poems as a gift to our community of readers.





Fragment

Susan Brind Morrow


I love to watch you walking in the evening, when you’re afraid,

and your wavering frame folds back arc-like to fight the wind.

Your skin melts golden with the sides of grass

and voices of birds skin your delicate heart.




Thaw

Susan Brind Morrow


Black earth, wet earth, first smell of spring.

We walk around the lake where the smashed ice lies in loose low heaps

like scree,

Where the lake, refrozen now, broke and spilled it in the wind.

Our feet slide beneath us in the steel gray evening.

A mallard shot open spreads its frozen insides on the ice, thick and red

around its waxy yellow organs rimmed with iridescent feathers blue and

green,

a scrap thrown up, a treasure of the splintering thaw




The Silver Forest

Susan Brind Morrow


In the silver forest the light is silver

And the hard leaves of salt-fed trees clatter in the wind

And the snakes and birds in them are invisible.

Their roots wind through pocked iron coral

That on the surface cuts like teeth,

Roots carved in claws as smooth and hard as ivory.


For a day I pretend I am a creature of the sea

I lay flat on the sand and let the froth slide under me.

Hush, no time... the waves are circular with the tide.

The wind animates the mineral earth

As though it were its disembodied breath.

This is a secret.


The sand lies down under the waves

The color of my brother’s skin

And the water is the color of my brother’s eyes

Here he comes over the sand, a mirror of me.

I close my eyes and have one true friend.






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